Truth Vs. Trust

By | February 3, 2016

For most of the 20th century, mass media (newspapers, magazines, books; then broadcast news) was the “transmission vector” through which current public ideas spread. People shared a common basis of information, typically framed in a paradigm understood by the audience. I tend to call this idea the “shared front page” effect, as in “Did you see what made the front page of the newspaper this morning?”

Along the way, most of this media messaging was underwritten (so to speak) by paid commercial advertising: Typically 85% of the revenue stream at a newspaper, 100% for radio and television stations. The division between editorial decisions and advertiser business has always varied, but the relationship always drove one consistent goal: Grow your audience. More potential exposure equals more value.

James B. Twitchell, author of the essay “But First, a Word from Our Sponsor: Advertising and the Carnivalization of Culture,” adds this observation: “For whatever else advertising ‘does,’ one thing is certain: by adding value to material, by adding meaning to objects, by branding things, advertising performs a role historically associated with religion.

In the 21th century, media’s role as gatekeeper has been shifted to influencer networks on social media, spreading ideas based on the merits of trust and speed – sometimes with minimal grounding in factual accuracy. The internet allows isolated groups anywhere on the planet to find each other, communicate privately and instantly, share and reinforce beliefs — all illustrative to the common metaphor about “thought contagion” popularly associated with memetics.

Beyond simply “adding meaning to object,” the tide of several broad new memes directly change people’s paradigm about the world they live in, with deadly consequences. Examples of such possible “life-or-death” memetic outbreaks:

* United States parents rejecting vaccination of their children due to a combination of autism myths, denial about health risks, ignorance about inoculated diseases and a decline in trust toward doctors and medical science. (See “4 theories” post on The Week, October 2011).

* Radical Islam’s appeal to Muslims living among western cultures and carrying out acts of violent terrorism in local communities. Some recent cases in 2015 include the Dec. 3 mass murder in a San Bernardino workplace; the June 17 attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church Bible study group in Charleston, S.C.; the May 3 gunmen attack on Curtis Culwell Center art exhibit in Garland, Texas.

* Endless arguments about climate change (aka “global warming”), one mote in the abyss of conspiracy theories attempting to fill the trust void about “factual” information.

In Richard Brodie’s Virus of the Mind (1996; Integral Press, Seattle WA 98122; p. 168), the author matched memetics and journalism with the line “Truth is not one of the strong selectors for memes… but ‘making sense’ is.” In other words, those reinforcing an audience’s paradigm of beliefs will carry the greater trust as an influencer.

Brodie identified five top meme buttons, things news editors held insight toward and now function as drivers for “viral” social media:


Second-order buttons:

* Belonging
* Distinguishing yourself
* Caring
* Approval
* Obeying authority

As Jay Rosen wrote on his blog (at the time in mid-2005, about the “Downing Street Memo” and the lead up to the Iraq War): “News judgment used to be king. If the press ruled against you, you just weren’t news. But if you weren’t news how would anyone know enough about you to contest the ruling? Today, the World Wide Web is the sovereign force, and journalists live and work according to its rules.”

So the question of the day becomes: How can journalists continue to grow exposure and value for their parent news organizations in a world increasing fractured by issues of truth and trust?